Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Closing the Gap: A Social Imaginary for the Common Good

Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Closing the Gap: A Social Imaginary for the Common Good

Article excerpt

A rising tide may lift all boats, but that is little solace if you don't own one. Wealth may trickle down, but how much liquidity does it take at the top to produce one drop at the bottom? The platitudes that promise widespread gain from a growing economy ring hollow to many today. In a 2014 Pew survey, a majority of respondents in the United States and Europe named "inequality" as the "greatest threat to the world."1

In the years since the 2008 financial crisis, a vast amount of research has produced a cottage industry of books, papers, and studies on wealth inequality. In 2015 alone, substantial reports by Oxfam, the International Monetary Fund, and the Organisation for Economic CoOperation and Development delivered the bad news that economic inequality was on the rise worldwide and that it was producing damaging social, political, and economic effects.2 These followed on a notable 2014 Pew Research Center analysis showing that "the wealth gap between Americas high income group and everyone else has reached record high levels."3 Additionally, the post-recession years have seen a surge in serious tomes by major economists and others addressing financial disparities. Thomas Piketty s surprise best-selling Capital in the Twenty-First Century was only one of many such volumes.4

Concern over the wealth and income gap now seems almost de rigueur, even among those whose personal and business interests have perpetuated the imbalance. In May of 2014, Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever, and Lynn Forester de Rothschild, CEO of E. L. Rothschild, referred to wealth inequality as producing a "capitalist threat to capitalism."5 At the 2015 World Economic Forum, where the rarefied elite meet annually in Davos, Switzerland, the Oxfam report was presented and discussed. As the one percent vied for invitations to the most prestigious parties, they were being reminded that they owned 48 percent of the worlds wealth and, if current trends continued, by 2016 they would own more than the bottom 99 percent combined.6

Wealth inequality has become such a concern because it is clear that current levels of imbalance have detrimental effects on the economy, democracy, and social solidarity. Economically, wide disparities of wealth mean that those in the bottom 99 percent have less money to spend, reducing demand and stalling economic growth. Politically, especially after the U.S. Supreme Courts Citizens United ruling, more money means more political influence, marginalizing those who have less and diminishing democratic participation. Socially, economic inequality chips away at civic solidarity and communal wellbeing. Recent studies show that many countries with a growing GDP find themselves declining in aspects of overall health and happiness.1

In what follows, I will propose a theological vision that attempts methodologically to find space that is neither ecclesiomonist (that is, the answer to the market is simply the church), nor uncritically liberal (that is, the answer to inequality is for the church to back the most progressive secular voices), nor theologically neoliberal (that is, the answer to inequality is a theological apology for the free market). While ecclesial embodiment of counter-cultural practices will be needed to provide a foretaste of redeemed economy, the global nature of economic interdependence means that a comprehensive collaboration will be necessary to make broad and sustainable change.

The argument will proceed through four parts: first, a challenge to the fairy tale of the self-regulating economy; second, a critique of the anthropological assumptions beneath current economic practice; third, an examination of the nature of ownership and the sin of excess; and fourth, an analysis of value and the good. The paper concludes with a proposal for alternative policies and practices to strengthen the church's witness and nurture the common good.

The Magical Thinking of the Market

The institutions, policies, and practices that have made wealth inequality seem both inevitable and justified are themselves legitimized by what Charles Taylor calls the "social imaginary" of the modem Western world. …

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